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Emotions ran high on Friday as a convoy of thousands of Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees traveled south through their damaged city toward new temporary housing, receiving a promise that the government would give them relief money within days.
The raging wildfire that has attacked Fort McMurray in the past week grew overnight from a size of about 85,000 hectares to 101,000 hectares — an area larger than the size of Edmonton. Although officials said it now appeared to be moving away from populated areas, the extreme weather conditions in Alberta would likely keep the fire burning for weeks in nearby forests.
"Right now we really do need some rain. There’s no question about it," said Alberta government wildfire manager Chad Morrison at a news conference with other leaders. "And then even once we get rain, there's still going to be a lot of fire out there and a lot of work and we'll be here for weeks and weeks to put that fire out."
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley praised the city's residents for calmly and effectively responding to the crisis. She said some 80,000 affected residents who were forced out following Tuesday's emergency evacuation would receive relief money by next Wednesday. The immediate relief would cost the province about $100 million, providing $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent, she said.
Melissa Blake, the mayor of Wood Buffalo, fought back tears of gratitude over massive support received from across the country.
"I am a mayor who is very prepared to face tragedy and loss," she said. "I'm not a mayor who's so prepared to take all this overwhelming support. If you see me in weak moments, it's because I am absolutely overwhelmed by what we've received. So I want to end this with a simple thanks and ask of my citizens to remember how blessed we all are."
Notley said all of the first responders, including firefighters, police officers, health professionals, and military personnel, among others, deserved praise for their efforts to contain the damage.
"These are the days to see the work of real heroes," Notley said.
The fire has also disrupted many of the region's local oil sands production due to the evacuation and ongoing dangers. Some estimates have pegged the impact at a lost of 40 per cent of total production or nearly one million barrels per day.
Morrison said the fire had also reached the doors of the Nexen Long Lake facility, south of the city, but that winds were now pushing it away.
Government officials have praised the local oil companies and other businesses for offering support in transportation and housing of evacuees.
But Notley urged residents not to try to return home. She said it would still take time for officials to assess the damage and determine whether it was safe for people to return.